Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Asia’s Next Flashpoint?

The offer to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of a position as an economic adviser to Cambodian Premier Hun Sen has inflamed relations between the two countries. The Diplomat contributor Luke Hunt travels to Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Preah Vihear and finds out how Thaksin’s new role has upset the Thai monarchy and quietly amused Beijing.

Luke Hunt

For more than a decade, villagers in the remote foothills of the rugged Dangrek Mountains saw brisk business from tourism as local Cambodians and Thais struck friendly cross-border deals that gave tourists access to the fabled temple at Preah Vihear.

Vendors sold the simple stuff–bottled water and cans of coke to the thirsty–as well as wood carvings and trinkets that resembled the 11th century ruins. This convivial trade went on against a backdrop of monks in saffron robes endlessly plodding up and down the crumbling staircases.

The warm ties that existed were also a business necessity.

Perched on a steep cliff, Preah Vihear has majestic views that stretch for miles across Cambodia’s tropical landscape. It also sits a comfortable 700 metres inside Cambodian territory, despite access into the complex being directed from the Phra Viham National Park on the Thai side of the border, where Western and Asian travellers enjoy facilities on par with the first world and can be bussed-up a gentle incline on wide paved roads in air-conditioned comfort to the temple’s gates.

Access was convenient and villagers shared the spoils that were only made possible by the end of conflicts that had bedeviled Cambodia for the last three decades of the 20th century.

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That was until a firestorm erupted under the guise of a dispute over sovereignty.

‘Business was good,’ says one vendor on the steps of the main chamber. ‘We worked well with the authorities and with the Cambodians, everybody made a living but now it’s a mess.’

The furore first erupted after the United Nations granted the temple World Heritage status in mid-2008. The Thais were incensed, and troops were dispatched across the border. Bloody confrontations followed amid diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute peacefully.

And, until recently, those efforts seemed to be gaining some traction. But increasingly recalcitrant politicians and bloody-minded protestors have seized on the historical significance of this tiny outpost to push their own ambitious agendas.

Thousands of Yellow Shirts, supporters of Thailand’s People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), took the tourist route here, determined to take back what they say is theirs. They are equally determined that ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra will only return to Thailand in handcuffs.

Fearing a repeat of their earlier, sometimes violent, exploits, Thai officials shut down the area and politely turned the Yellow Shirts away.

Meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen–the region’s longest serving leader–seemed set on inflaming tensions further by offering Thaksin, a convicted fugitive whose former policies surrounding Preah Vihear have raised more than eyebrows, a home in Cambodia.

Thailand recalled its ambassador and Cambodia followed suit.

Hun Sen proceeded to add some grist to his reputation as Cambodia’s ‘strongman’ and ordered his troops, Brigade 8, stationed at the temple alongside the Thais, to shoot on sight anyone seen crossing illegally into Cambodian territory.

He also offered Thaksin a job as an economics advisor, prompting Bangkok to retaliate by tearing-up hard-won agreements over oil exploration rights in the Gulf of Siam. Thai newspapers derided Hun Sen, as a ‘Big Bully’ and for his ‘lack of class and tact.’

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‘It’s easy to see why Thaksin would want to locate himself in Cambodia–it’s a much better base for him from which to maintain his connections in Thailand than, say, Dubai,’ says Greg Barton, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University in Melbourne.

‘Short of an actual return to Thailand this is arguably the next best thing for him,’ he says.

But the recent flare-up over Preah Vihear is only part of the story. The real problem is rooted in the colourful relationships between politicians who have upset senior brass within the Thai military at a time of rising national concern over the monarchy.

‘It’s an emotional choice,’ says Chheang Vannarith, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) on the move by Hun Sen to reach out to Thaksin. ‘The friendships are far more important than rational calculations.’

Hun Sen and Thaksin share both a close personal friendship and a mutual loathing of Thailand’s current premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

‘It started at the personal level but has since been elevated into the political sphere,’ Chheang says.

Complicating relations between the two nations is the international boundary that separates the two countries.

The border was finalized by Siam and Cambodia’s colonial ruler, France, in 1908. However, Bangkok never really reconciled itself to the loss of Preah Vihear.

More important than the temple, though, is the surrounding real estate–a slice of land, most of which is only a few hundred metres wide, isolated by the 800 kilometre border on one side and sky scraping cliffs on the other. This is the military high ground looming over Cambodia the Thai military always wanted to control.

Thailand sided with Japan in World War II and grabbed what it wanted from Cambodia and Laos, including Preah Vihear and the much grander temples of Angkor Wat.

But the confiscated lands were handed back when Britain threatened to lump Thailand in the same axis basket as Germany, Japan and Italy. Bangkok challenged again for the land in 1962, but the International Court of Justice ruled in Cambodia’s favour.

The latest blow to Thai pride was delivered by the UN last July, when Preah Vihear was granted a World Heritage listing. Military and civilian leaders were outraged as the decision took confirmation of Khmer sovereignty over Preah Vihear to a much higher level.

But they were also stunned because the listing was granted after Bangkok failed to lodge any objections to the decision. It would later transpire that the Thaksin-friendly government had signed off in support of Cambodia’s claim.

In return, extensive Thai developments in the southwest Cambodian town of Koh Kong, where Thaksin spent much of his time ogling potential investments, were apparently approved. Located on an island close to Thailand, Koh Kong has been tipped as an ideal location for a Thaksin government in exile.

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Shortly before the listing, Defence Minister Tea Banh said Hun Sen trusted Thaksin as an advisor in the development of Koh Kong as a Special Economic Zone. Other dispatches have signalled Thaksin intends to build a second casino and entertainment complex, a financial district and shipping port.

‘No doubt Thaksin worked hard and long for this invitation. But it wouldn’t have come unless Hun Sen wanted to send a signal to the government of Prime Minister Abhisit,’ Barton says.

This was not the first time Thaksin’s business dealings had upset Bangkok’s chattering classes or the all-powerful military. The sale of his Shin Corp in 2006 for $1.88 billion dollars to Temasek, a Singapore Government sovereign wealth fund, was staggering for its sheer gall–not one cent was paid in taxes, and the idea that a sitting prime minister could sell a communications satellite network that also carried sensitive military data to a foreign government flabbergasted many.

Thaksin was ousted in a putsch soon after. But his policies, which included universal health care and debt relief for farmers, ensured the overwhelming support of the Thai masses, particularly in the countryside.

He was tried and found guilty of corruption in 2008 but fled before a two year jail sentence could be imposed. The Constitutional Court and the Administrative Court also ruled his policies on Preah Vihear seriously violated the constitution and prejudiced national sovereignty.

However, in exile Thaksin continued to pull the political strings and his Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) reinvented itself as the People’s Power Party (PPP), with his loyal Red Shirts routinely confronting their adversaries in yellow on the streets of the capital.

Gavin Greenwood, a regional security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates said Thaksin challenged the entrenched powers of Thailand in a manner unseen in any Asian country in recent times.

‘Their experiment with democracy–as enshrined by the 1997 Constitution–is continuing and will not be concluded until even greater challenges are met,’ Greenwood says.

The PPP easily won the 2007 election, but protests continued. Yellow Shirts led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul invaded and closed Suvarnabhumi Airport leaving thousands of holidaymakers stranded and ruining the vacation plans of thousands more.

Yellow Shirt protests eventually made the government untenable, despite its popular mandate.

Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej resigned as prime minister after less than a year in office and Abhisit emerged as the newest leader with a loose coalition that appeased most factions in Thailand’s brawling political arena.

But despite the poisonous atmosphere, Chheang says he is still upbeat about ties between Thailand and Cambodia and says that Hun Sen’s support for Thaksin reflects the ousted leader’s popular support at home, with Abhisit seen as only a short term leader.

These days, Cambodia holds additional gems for China–a deep water port at Sihanoukville and scores of strategically important islands in the Gulf of Siam where the Chinese, Russian and US navies are vying for influence. Potential oil reserves are an additional bonus.

The islands are part of a wider chain known in China as the String of Pearls–a succession of military bases scattered around Southeast Asia designed to secure Beijing’s trading interests.

‘As the region’s superpower, China is following all these events very closely,’ Chheang says on recent developments between Cambodia and Thailand.

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Asked whether Hun Sen was mindful of Chinese considerations when challenging Thailand, one Cambodian Interior Ministry source tells me quickly: ‘Oh yes, definitely yes.’

Chheang adds that a further complication for Thailand is that it does not enjoy good relations with any of its immediate neighbours.

‘They’re smart diplomats when it comes to dealing with superpowers like the US, but they don’t treat their neighbours well. Thailand has a conflict going on with every one of its neighbours,’ he says about Malaysia, Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

And, with the US remaining Thailand’s most important ally, Beijing has positioned itself accordingly.

China is Cambodia’s biggest supplier of military hardware, but the actual figures are a well-guarded secret and the International Monetary Fund and the extensive NGO networks that operate here are critical of money being channelled into military spending rather than poverty reduction.

Of the expenditure figures the government does make public, Cambodia revealed that escalating cross-border tensions will result in the rise of military spending by 23 percent next year to $274 million.

Much of the recent bellicosity has a familiar ring, harking back to the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s when Indochina became a battlefield for Cold War proxies.

Greenwood says he hopes tensions ease into a low-frequency grumble, barely audible to rest of the world. But he warns that if Hun Sen continues to push Thailand, then Abhisit’s options will narrow.

‘He might feel impelled to demonstrate the unequal nature of the Thai-Cambodian relationship with a display of something far stronger than moral certainty,’ he says. ‘This could once again develop into an armed stand-off, with the high risk of small unit-level clashes, if not an all-out confrontation.’

‘Once troops face each other under such circumstances, events risk being driven by miscalculation, indiscipline or provocation rather the calculations of a rational strategy.’

The mismatch between the countries was a point apparently not entirely lost on Hun Sen.

At a carefully staged joint press conference held with Thaksin on November 11 he refused a Thai extradition request for Thaksin and accused Bangkok of adopting a ‘Cold War mentality … where your neighbour is your enemy.’

But he also noted the collective GDPs of Burma, Laos and Cambodia were less than 10 percent of Thailand’s.

‘Why are you so worried when your neighbours are so poor? They need help,’ he said in regards to the current Thai leadership. Sounding a little irritated, he added: ‘They’re trying to pester me everywhere.’

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Thaksin said he wanted to use his economic experience to help Cambodia’s poorest out of poverty, although such pronouncements are unlikely to impress villagers in the Dangrek Mountains.

‘People living along the border are very scared,’ Chheang says. ‘However, war, a conflict on the border? I don’t think so. I can’t see serious repercussions [from Thaksin’s appointment]…Some people fear that Thaksin might be allowed to set-up a government in exile here but that won’t happen. That fear isn’t justified. The days of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, when we allowed our country do that kind of thing are over.’

But the view in Bangkok, where Cambodian influence is minimal and political friendships in tatters, is less certain. Here, domestic politics are driving foreign policy and the biggest issue is the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadjej, who has ruled since 1946.

Land of Disappearing Smiles

Widely seen as the sole unifying force in Thailand, 81-year-old King Bhumibol was hospitalized in mid-September with a lung infection. His condition sparked panic selling on the Thai stock market and a sell-off of the Thai Baht a month later.

In early November, the monarch looked frail as he made a rare public appearance in a wheel chair with his wife Queen Sirikit and heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkom.

Vajiralongkom’s hugely popular sister, Princess Sirindhorn, is next in line to the throne while his fifth and youngest son Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, born in 2005 to his third wife, is also a contender.

Divorce and family squabbles have distanced from royal circles the children of Vajiralongkom’s previous marriages.

Greenwood says Thais are involved in a transitional struggle between the traditional elite–as embodied by the monarchy, the military and sections of the professional middle classes–and the enfranchised and mainly poor majority who Thaksin and his PPP have come to represent.

‘The Thai catharsis will almost certainly centre on the future of the monarchy following the death of the king and could prove difficult and dangerous,’ he says.

But discussion of the succession is enormously sensitive–any comment, any perceived slight that can be interpreted as an offence against the dignity of the monarchy risks charges of lese Majeste, which carry a jail term of between 3 and 15 years.

Charges have already been brought against The Times, BBC, The Economist, an American author an Australian novelist and the entire board of Thailand’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC).

Attempts to publish details of Thaksin’s business dealings with Vajralongorn, meanwhile, have also resulted in lese majeste charges being brought by supporters of the Crown Prince. Over the years these supporters have been friends with Thaksin, who has carried what Vajralongorn lacked–popular support–while the Crown Prince in return held the key to royal circles.

A tie-up between the two would fill the missing gaps in each one’s resume. But, given the current depth of animosity, each would also risk alienating their traditional support base.

‘The monarchy is in turmoil and the future is uncertain,’ Chheang says. ‘Some people have even suggested a republic. So any relationship between Thaksin and the Crown Prince could be short term.’

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The ramifications for the region could be enormous, with many believing the recent spats over Preah Vihear and Thaksin’s indulgence of Cambodia could prove to be little more than a side show to the main event. Those wishing to avoid an escalation therefore are suggesting Hun Sen back off or risk the situation getting out of hand.

A tumultuous showdown between the factions, whether at Preah Vihear or on the streets of Bangkok, would not please the vast majority of Cambodians or Thais who are struggling to make ends meet amid a depressing economic downturn.

One opinion poll in Thailand taken after Thaksin arrived in Cambodia found more than 60 percent of Thais favoured diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the dispute at Preah Vihear.

This correspondent’s view based on his conversations in Cambodia suggest any similar survey conducted here would probably find similar results–most would prefer to see cooler heads prevail.

But here, Hun Sen rules as a popularly elected dictator with little opposition and he holds the moral high ground. Cambodia is internationally recognised as the legitimate sovereign owner of Preah Vihear and it was the Thais who crossed the border and occupied the site.

Still, by attaching himself to Thaksin, Hun Sen may have overstepped the mark.

‘His contempt for Abhisit–who he apparently views as a metropolitan neo-Western acolyte with no business in the neighbourhood–may have coloured his judgement,’ Greenwood says.

‘Thaksin has absolutely no chance, in my view, of recovering his political mantle in Thailand. Apart from the legal issues involved, there have been sufficient warnings by ‘elements close to the military’ that there are those who would be willing to kill him if necessary.’

‘We like Thais, we like the Thai language we like Thai products. But I think it’s a lose-lose situation over the short term,’ he says. ‘But we are predicting the PPP will win the next election and that means Thaksin and his supporters will be returned…The value of Thaksin will be a win-win.’

Thais are expected to go to the polls by mid-2010, but Greenwood says he believes Hun Sen may have miscalculated.

‘In a single stroke he boosted Abhisit’s popularity, cast Thaksin as a near traitor and diverted attention away from the King’s health and its inevitable intimations of his mortality and the implications of what many fear will be a troubled, contentious and even divisive succession.’

And as the political convulsions over Preah Vihear, Thaksin and Hun Sen take centre stage, two very different players are keenly focused on unfolding events—Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkom and China.

Thailand’s Unwanted Threesome

If left to its own devices, Thailand is capable of managing the prickly relations with Cambodia. But Cambodia’s ties with China complicate matters considerably.

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Khmers have sent tributes to Chinese emperors and regarded Beijing as the centre of the universe since the first Chinese diplomats arrived in Angkor in 1296.

As the once mighty Angkor Kingdom headed into terminal decline, the Middle Kingdom emerged as a significant counterweight to neighbourhood ‘pests’ Thailand and Vietnam who fancied Cambodia as a vassal state. That policy suited China for centuries.

The issue resurfaced in 1955, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk sought to re-fashion his country’s foreign policy after independence from France and met with then Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai.

Misjudged backing of the Khmer Rouge by China and Vietnamese support for Hun Sen and the 1978 invasion that ousted Pol Pot, left Sino-Cambodian relations in tatters.

But more recently, Western countries have provided the bridge between Cambodian foreign policy and nations like Australia, France and the United States, who have stepped-in and restructured the Cambodian military along more professional lines.

The men of Brigade 8 on the hilltops around Preah Vihear are a vastly different breed to the press-ganged cadre that fought here in the vicious cycle of Cold War conflicts.

Yet Western influence is waning. The United States’ CIA has complained the US embassy no longer enjoys the access to Phnom Penh’s power brokers that it once did. And Hun Sen’s irritation with Western carping over Cambodia’s atrocious human rights record is now legendary.

Western criticism is normally accompanied by much-needed foreign aid, usually in the order of $500 million and $1 billion a year. So when Phnom Penh went searching for alternative sources of funding with fewer strings attached, Beijing was only too happy to oblige. It began in November 2002, at a meeting on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference, held in Cambodia for the first time.

As the only Westerner present at the meeting, this reporter can confirm Hun Sen was afflicted by a rare bout of nerves at the meeting. He was also apologetic as the air conditioning wasn’t functioning, meaning the room was stifling hot.

But Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was cavalier, nonchalantly proclaiming: ‘the hotter the better.’

The pair sat down and signed a cluster of documents in which China wrote-off the equivalent of $2 billion worth of debt incurred by the Khmer Rouge. Bilateral relations have flourished ever since.

‘The Chinese influence is very strong in Cambodia,’ Chheang says. ‘Cambodia is playing a very good game in using Beijing to balance the United States.’

These days, Cambodia holds additional gems for China–a deep water port at Sihanoukville and scores of strategically important islands in the Gulf of Siam where the Chinese, Russian and US navies are vying for influence. Potential oil reserves are an additional bonus.

The islands are part of a wider chain known in China as the String of Pearls–a succession of military bases scattered around Southeast Asia designed to secure Beijing’s trading interests.

‘As the region’s superpower, China is following all these events very closely,’ Chheang says on recent developments between Cambodia and Thailand.

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Asked whether Hun Sen was mindful of Chinese considerations when challenging Thailand, one Cambodian Interior Ministry source tells me quickly: ‘Oh yes, definitely yes.’

Chheang adds that a further complication for Thailand is that it does not enjoy good relations with any of its immediate neighbours.

‘They’re smart diplomats when it comes to dealing with superpowers like the US, but they don’t treat their neighbours well. Thailand has a conflict going on with every one of its neighbours,’ he says about Malaysia, Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

And, with the US remaining Thailand’s most important ally, Beijing has positioned itself accordingly.

China is Cambodia’s biggest supplier of military hardware, but the actual figures are a well-guarded secret and the International Monetary Fund and the extensive NGO networks that operate here are critical of money being channelled into military spending rather than poverty reduction.

Of the expenditure figures the government does make public, Cambodia revealed that escalating cross-border tensions will result in the rise of military spending by 23 percent next year to $274 million.

Much of the recent bellicosity has a familiar ring, harking back to the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s when Indochina became a battlefield for Cold War proxies.

Greenwood says he hopes tensions ease into a low-frequency grumble, barely audible to rest of the world. But he warns that if Hun Sen continues to push Thailand, then Abhisit’s options will narrow.

‘He might feel impelled to demonstrate the unequal nature of the Thai-Cambodian relationship with a display of something far stronger than moral certainty,’ he says. ‘This could once again develop into an armed stand-off, with the high risk of small unit-level clashes, if not an all-out confrontation.’

‘Once troops face each other under such circumstances, events risk being driven by miscalculation, indiscipline or provocation rather the calculations of a rational strategy.’

The mismatch between the countries was a point apparently not entirely lost on Hun Sen.

At a carefully staged joint press conference held with Thaksin on November 11 he refused a Thai extradition request for Thaksin and accused Bangkok of adopting a ‘Cold War mentality … where your neighbour is your enemy.’

But he also noted the collective GDPs of Burma, Laos and Cambodia were less than 10 percent of Thailand’s.

‘Why are you so worried when your neighbours are so poor? They need help,’ he said in regards to the current Thai leadership. Sounding a little irritated, he added: ‘They’re trying to pester me everywhere.’

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Thaksin said he wanted to use his economic experience to help Cambodia’s poorest out of poverty, although such pronouncements are unlikely to impress villagers in the Dangrek Mountains.

‘People living along the border are very scared,’ Chheang says. ‘However, war, a conflict on the border? I don’t think so. I can’t see serious repercussions [from Thaksin’s appointment]…Some people fear that Thaksin might be allowed to set-up a government in exile here but that won’t happen. That fear isn’t justified. The days of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, when we allowed our country do that kind of thing are over.’

But the view in Bangkok, where Cambodian influence is minimal and political friendships in tatters, is less certain. Here, domestic politics are driving foreign policy and the biggest issue is the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadjej, who has ruled since 1946.

Land of Disappearing Smiles

Widely seen as the sole unifying force in Thailand, 81-year-old King Bhumibol was hospitalized in mid-September with a lung infection. His condition sparked panic selling on the Thai stock market and a sell-off of the Thai Baht a month later.

In early November, the monarch looked frail as he made a rare public appearance in a wheel chair with his wife Queen Sirikit and heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkom.

Vajiralongkom’s hugely popular sister, Princess Sirindhorn, is next in line to the throne while his fifth and youngest son Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, born in 2005 to his third wife, is also a contender.

Divorce and family squabbles have distanced from royal circles the children of Vajiralongkom’s previous marriages.

Greenwood says Thais are involved in a transitional struggle between the traditional elite–as embodied by the monarchy, the military and sections of the professional middle classes–and the enfranchised and mainly poor majority who Thaksin and his PPP have come to represent.

‘The Thai catharsis will almost certainly centre on the future of the monarchy following the death of the king and could prove difficult and dangerous,’ he says.

But discussion of the succession is enormously sensitive–any comment, any perceived slight that can be interpreted as an offence against the dignity of the monarchy risks charges of lese Majeste, which carry a jail term of between 3 and 15 years.

Charges have already been brought against The Times, BBC, The Economist, an American author an Australian novelist and the entire board of Thailand’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC).

Attempts to publish details of Thaksin’s business dealings with Vajralongorn, meanwhile, have also resulted in lese majeste charges being brought by supporters of the Crown Prince. Over the years these supporters have been friends with Thaksin, who has carried what Vajralongorn lacked–popular support–while the Crown Prince in return held the key to royal circles.

A tie-up between the two would fill the missing gaps in each one’s resume. But, given the current depth of animosity, each would also risk alienating their traditional support base.

‘The monarchy is in turmoil and the future is uncertain,’ Chheang says. ‘Some people have even suggested a republic. So any relationship between Thaksin and the Crown Prince could be short term.’

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The ramifications for the region could be enormous, with many believing the recent spats over Preah Vihear and Thaksin’s indulgence of Cambodia could prove to be little more than a side show to the main event. Those wishing to avoid an escalation therefore are suggesting Hun Sen back off or risk the situation getting out of hand.

A tumultuous showdown between the factions, whether at Preah Vihear or on the streets of Bangkok, would not please the vast majority of Cambodians or Thais who are struggling to make ends meet amid a depressing economic downturn.

One opinion poll in Thailand taken after Thaksin arrived in Cambodia found more than 60 percent of Thais favoured diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the dispute at Preah Vihear.

This correspondent’s view based on his conversations in Cambodia suggest any similar survey conducted here would probably find similar results–most would prefer to see cooler heads prevail.

But here, Hun Sen rules as a popularly elected dictator with little opposition and he holds the moral high ground. Cambodia is internationally recognised as the legitimate sovereign owner of Preah Vihear and it was the Thais who crossed the border and occupied the site.

Still, by attaching himself to Thaksin, Hun Sen may have overstepped the mark.

‘His contempt for Abhisit–who he apparently views as a metropolitan neo-Western acolyte with no business in the neighbourhood–may have coloured his judgement,’ Greenwood says.

‘Thaksin has absolutely no chance, in my view, of recovering his political mantle in Thailand. Apart from the legal issues involved, there have been sufficient warnings by ‘elements close to the military’ that there are those who would be willing to kill him if necessary.’